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Press Releases

State Names 250 Schools to List of Priority, Focus Schools

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Education; August 13, 2012

NASHVILLE — In accordance with Tennessee’s new accountability system, designed through the state’s waiver from No Child Left Behind, the Tennessee Department of Education today released a list of Priority Schools and Focus Schools to the State Board of Education.

Priority Schools are the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee, in terms of academic achievement. These 83 schools are eligible for inclusion in the Achievement School District or in district Innovation Zones. They may also plan and adopt turnaround models for school improvement.

Focus Schools are the 10 percent of schools in the state with the largest achievement gaps between groups of students, such as racial and ethnic groups, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities and English-language learners. The department has named 167 schools as Focus Schools.

Schools on the Focus list are not necessarily there because of low achievement. In fact, many showed excellent growth last year. Rather, the Focus designation provides districts the opportunity to look closely at particular subgroups of students who may be underperforming and to provide specific support and intervention.

Focus Schools will be eligible to apply for grants aimed at dramatically closing the achievement gap. Schools not awarded a competitive grant will be provided state resources to close their achievement gaps.

Tennessee strives for all students to improve every year, with students who are furthest behind improve at a faster rate. By naming Priority Schools and Focus Schools, the department of education enables districts to assist these schools and create improvement plans tailored to the areas they need to grow. Districts may also work with the state’s Centers for Regional Excellence (COREs) to share effective strategies for raising achievement levels and closing gaps.

“We want all schools to be intentional about improving student achievement, especially for students who are the furthest behind, and this year, we have been able to offer more nuanced measures of school accountability,” said Kevin Huffman, education commissioner. “We believe these measures will lead many schools to create effective intervention programs and ultimately address their needs for improvement.”

The Priority and Focus Schools lists, as well as an information sheet explaining the state’s new accountability system, can be found here. Schools identified as Priority and Focus will retain the designation and varied support for three years, from 2012-13 through 2014-15. The department will announce Reward Schools, the top-performing schools in the state, in the coming weeks.

Earlier in the summer, Tennessee named its 21 Exemplary Districts, which successfully raised student achievement and narrowed gaps under the new system. District accountability information can be found here.

For more information, contact Kelli Gauthier at (615) 532-7817 or Kelli.Gauthier@tn.gov.

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Education

Huffman Optimistic TN’s New, Long-Form NCLB Waiver Request Will Win Approval

Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman says Tennessee is still “well-positioned” to get a waiver from the federal government on the No Child Left Behind law, although the state was caught off-guard by some criteria for the move.

Tennessee applied for a waiver in July and expected a fairly quick response. The state had also heard substantial positive feedback from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about its chances of getting the waiver.

But the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance material in September outlining what was required in the waiver process, and the state is looking at a Nov. 14 deadline to submit a revised application.

Huffman acknowledged one aspect of the guidance came “out of left field.” That item requires the state to identify 10 percent of its schools where achievement gaps are pronounced and how to address them.

The achievement gaps could be in any number of subgroups, such as how white students perform compared to non-whites, or how students from low-income families perform compared to other students.

Huffman said there is a lot of overlap in the state’s original waiver application and what is required in the follow-up, but he noted the “focus schools” in the 10 percent looking at achievement gaps presented the department with a new task in terms of requirements and specificity.

“This we did not anticipate until we opened up our guidance at the end of September,” Huffman said.

He said the state would attempt to target interventions for schools with achievement gaps, and he said competitive federal grants could provide the resources needed.

A later deadline than Nov. 14 will also be available early next year for states to apply, Huffman said.

“People have suggested only 5 or 10 states are positioned to get a waiver in the first round, primarily because most states have not gone down the path on some of the things we’ve gone down the path on,” Huffman said in a presentation this week to the Tennessee State School Board. “So I think we’re well-positioned relative to our peers to get a waiver.”

Huffman said the state’s original waiver request was seven-and-a-half pages long, but he expects the Nov. 14 application to be hundreds of pages long, including attachments.

The commissioner said one strength in the state’s application, as in the original application, is its intervention efforts on the bottom 5 percent of schools in proficiency. Those efforts include Tennessee’s steps in developing its achievement school district.

Huffman said the federal government has not said publicly when a response to the application could be expected, but he said the state would like to hear results by the end of this year. The process would involve simply meeting criteria for the waiver and would not be a matter of Tennessee competing with other states.

Many states have complained about unrealistic expectations in the No Child Left Behind law as it stands pertaining to adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

Categories
Education News

Tennessee Favored In No Child Left Behind Announcement

Gov. Bill Haslam got the first real sign that Tennessee will get what it wants on the No Child Left Behind law when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called him last Friday about attending an event in Washington.

The event, it turns out, was a White House ceremony Friday where Haslam introduced President Barack Obama, who announced changes on NCLB. Tennessee requested a waiver from the law in July.

Deciding whether to accept an invitation to the White House would normally be a no-brainer for a governor, but Haslam had a little scheduling conflict. His daughter, Annie, is getting married. The wedding was planned for Saturday in the front yard of the Tennessee Residence — with the governor himself performing the ceremony.

“I said, ‘I’ve got a little issue. I’ve got a wedding going on that week, and I’ve got to make sure my boss says it’s OK,'” Haslam said Friday in Nashville. He didn’t say exactly who the boss was he was referring to, although presumably it is First Lady Crissy Haslam. The rehearsal dinner was scheduled Friday night.

“Once I knew I could do it logistically, I said I would be glad to, because I think they’re doing the right thing,” Haslam said of the trip.

The governor wasn’t allowing many details about the wedding, but he was happy Friday to talk about his visit to Washington, the return from which delayed him from his appointment to speak in Nashville at the Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development. A luncheon crowd of hundreds of people waited for him in the ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel.

Haslam, who usually keeps a full but tight schedule, apologized repeatedly for being late when he finally got to the podium. Weather had delayed his return. He didn’t speak long. But the journey to Washington spoke volumes about Tennessee’s place in education reform in the Obama administration’s eyes.

Obama announced a new flexibility plan on NCLB for states engaged in education reform. The criteria to receive that flexibility fall in line with the reform effort going on in Tennessee, begun under former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Duncan gave high praise to Tennessee’s efforts when he appeared in Nashville in August at West End Middle School and at the offices of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

Obama is seeking reforms that still include standards that will make students college-ready and career-ready, accountability in the education system and evaluating teachers and principals on their effectiveness. But the White House move appears to be an agreement that expectations in NCLB have proved to be simply impossible to reach.

So on Friday morning, Haslam stood in the East Room of the White House, thanking Duncan, saying while he doesn’t always agree with Obama there should be action when Republicans and Democrats do agree, and introducing the president. No one guaranteed Haslam would get what he wants on NCLB, but the sight of the East Room appeared to say he would.

“When they said, ‘Do you want to come?’ I said, ‘Well, please don’t ask us up there if you’re going to embarrass us down the road,'” Haslam said. “I think the message was: ‘We like the path that you’re on.'”

States across the country have complained about the standards required in the law as being unrealistic and not achievable. The Obama administration seems to agree. Tennessee has been involved in education reform that won $501 million in the first round of the federal Race to the Top competition, showing the Obama administration likes what the state is doing.

The Obama administration issued criteria Friday that will give states that are working on reform the flexibility they seek. The White House noted that many states have adopted college- and career-ready standards and are implementing reforms in teacher and principal evaluations.

Obama said Friday a fresh approach will give states the opportunity to improve but will not serve as a reprieve from the spirit of the No Child Left Behind Law, which was adopted under former President George W. Bush.

Haslam said in his remarks at the White House that Tennessee is most qualified to make its own decisions about how to make progress in education. Tennessee’s efforts and the federal government’s position seem to match.

“We have talked with Secretary Duncan several times over the last five or six days,” Haslam said in Nashville Friday. “We talked about what their criteria are and where Tennessee stacks up.

“I think they feel really good about what we’ve submitted to them and what we’re doing in Tennessee, so I don’t have any final word, but I feel good about our position.”

Haslam was asked if the federal step to give more authority to the states is a weakening of standards.

“Here’s why it’s not weakening the standards,” he said. “No Child Left Behind, while it was about raising standards, it let every state set their own. Until last year, Tennessee set the standard really low. Then it just measured by whether you met your own bar. Tennessee did the right thing and set the bar higher.

“Now all of a sudden we’re on a path (with the original NCLB expectations) where 100 percent of our schools weren’t going to meet the standards. It’s much better to measure improvement.”

Haslam used one of his frequent analogies by comparing the situation to a workout exercise.

“If somebody said, ‘Bill Haslam, you should get in better shape, and I want you to run a four-minute mile next week,’ no way,” he said. “I can get in better shape, but if the goal is to run a four-minute mile, it’s not going to happen. If they measure my improvement, I can do that.

“We basically are going to use the accountability standards that are set out in Race to the Top in our winning application there. It’s one of the reasons we feel good about our application for a waiver. They’re asking states to do the same thing they asked in Race to the Top.”

Haslam viewed the invitation to the White House as acknowledgement of what the state is doing, but he spoke openly of the obvious political consideration in choosing a Republican governor to join the Democratic president in the ceremony.

“The things they are asking us to do, we are doing, in terms of focusing on the achievement gap, in terms of linking student performance to teacher evaluation,” Haslam said. “All the key things that the president talked about are the things we are doing in Tennessee, and I think are the right things to do as well. That’s one of the reasons I decided to go do that.

“I think they do want some states that they can give waivers to, and hopefully quickly, and say this is a state that’s on the right path. Obviously, politically, it doesn’t hurt to have a Republican governor up there with him, just to be truthful about it.”

Obama thanked Duncan, then thanked Haslam for being at the announcement and for “the great work that he’s doing in Tennessee.

“I’m especially appreciative because I found out that his daughter is getting married, and he is doing the ceremony tomorrow, so we’ve got to get him back on time.”